The organization I chair, American Family Voices, is working on a video about the rising populist progressive movement in America, and we did an interview for it with a mentor and dear friend of mine, Heather Booth. Heather, who was down in Mississippi 50 years ago this summer for Freedom Summer, spoke in the interview of the question civil rights organizers used to ask of activists: "Are you willing to die for freedom?" And they were. In that year James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered, and black and white activists in Mississippi knew all too well they might pay the same price. The courage of those in the civil rights movement echoes through the ages. But Heather also said that the question activists are asking each other in this moment today has, at least for the moment, changed. The new question, she says, is: "Are you willing to live for freedom?"
Ever since our country's founders pledged each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the struggle for freedom, we have had Americans who had the courage to give the ultimate sacrifice for freedom -- soldiers, abolitionists, organizers, freedom riders. Fifty years out from Freedom Summer, we honor them by living for freedom -- in part, by registering voters who reactionaries are trying to keep from voting, just like in the original Freedom Summer. We live for freedom by supporting the work of the immigration rights activists fighting to keep families together. We live for freedom by organizing low wage workers, by holding Wall Street accountable, by demanding aggressive action on climate change, by finally doing something about the corrosive influence of big money in politics, and by taking on injustice wherever we may find it.
The odds are stacked against us progressives because of the tidal wave of money flowing to conservatives. With the Supreme Court writing one decision after another to make it easier for the wealthy and big corporations to expand their reach into our political system, and to weaken the power of unions and other groups who are willing to take on that corporate power, the odds seem to grow worse every day. Given the threats to our democracy, the fact that the middle class and poor are being crushed, the very real fear that we might see another financial collapse in another few years, the increase in hate speech, and that the habitability of the earth itself is in danger due to global warming, it is very difficult for activists to stay hopeful.
But progressives throughout American history have faced far worse odds and far darker days than what we face today. Certainly those signers of the Declaration of Independence, facing the most powerful empire in the world, with at least a third of the colonies' citizenry squarely against them, faced much worse odds. Harriet Tubman faced terrible odds sneaking back across the borders of slave states and bringing hundreds of slaves to freedom, and abolitionists in general were fighting against heavy odds all the way through until the passage of the 13th amendment. Women suffragists were mocked and ridiculed for demanding the vote, and given no chance of getting it right up to the time they won the fight in 1920. The Populist movement of the 1890s was given no chance for passage of a radical platform that called for an end to the gold standard, a progressive income tax, the direct election of Senators, civil service reform, an eight-hour work day, an end to child labor, a break-up of the big corporate trusts, and women's suffrage- all of which were passed into law within 40 years of their political party's demise. The movement for civil rights faced murder, violence, imprisonment, and terrible despair right up until the time the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act finally passed.
If modern-day progressives think we have it tough, we need to get over ourselves. The endless money of our opposition, the Supreme Court battering us at every turn, the nasty extremism of the right wing, and the immense size of the problems we face are all daunting, but we stand on the shoulders of those who faced much worst. We shouldn't forget that. And while we are battling our powerful foes, we shouldn't forget to celebrate our solidarity and successes, because in spite of the money and in spite of the power on the other side, we have won some victories in the past few years. Close to 10 million people now have health coverage because of the ACA. There is a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Workers in the Seattle area have a $15.00 minimum wage, and federal contractors are being forced to pay higher wages. Same sex marriage is legal in more and more states around the country. Carbon is being regulated as a pollutant.
This week in Detroit, 3,000 activists from across the country will be gathering for Netroots Nation, the premier annual progressive strategy conference. Detroit could not be a better place for progressives to rally together, as we stand with those who are in the toughest times, and the people of Detroit have been kicked around hard. Activists in Detroit are fighting back, though, and the Netroots Nation community will be standing in solidarity with them. We will be taking on all the serious issues mentioned above and more, but we will also be there to celebrate. To celebrate our victories, for sure; to celebrate our community and solidarity; but also just to celebrate the chance to live for freedom. Even as we curse (and fight) the darkness, we light a candle, too.
Two sons of Detroit, one a white guy and one a black guy, were rock and rollers who wrote songs about what working class and poor people feel all their time: their alienation from the powers that be. Bob Seger sung about working hard, playing by the rules, and not having the boss or anyone higher up care about what he was going through:
I work my back till it's racked with pain
The boss can't even recall my name
I show up late and I'm docked
It never fails
I feel like just another
Spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass
In a great big field...
And I feel like a number
Feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
A stranger in this land
I feel like a number
I'm not a number
I'm not a number
Dammit I'm a man
I said I'm a man
And Stevie Wonder wrote one of the great political protest songs of all time, calling out the politicians who come into the black community with empty promises and do nothing to actually help people:
It's not too cool to be ridiculed
But you brought this upon yourself
The world is tired of pacifiers
We want the truth and nothing else...
We would not care to wake up to the nightmare
That's becoming real life
But when mislead who knows a person's mind
Can turn as cold as ice un hum
Why do you keep on making us hear your song
Telling us how you are changing right from wrong
'Cause if you really want to hear our views
"You haven't done nothing"!
Progressives go to Detroit ready to live for freedom. The odds are against us, but they always have been. The money opposing us is enormous, but we won't let that stop us. The days are dark, but we will light things up.
And even facing the darkness, we will celebrate. After all, those two great protest songs I quoted above? They are also great dance songs.